The Master of Unknowing

Gerhard Richter: Painting After All

an exhibition at the Met Breuer, New York, March 4–closing date to be announced; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, August 15, 2020–January 18, 2021
(Both museums are temporarily closed; the exhibition can be viewed online at
Catalog of the exhibition by Sheena Wagstaff and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, with essays by Briony Fer, Hal Foster, Peter Geimer, Brinda Kumar, and André Rottmann
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 269 pp., $50.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)

Gerhard Richter

an exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery, New York City, February 28–April 25, 2020
(The gallery is temporarily closed.)
Group of People; painting by Gerhard Richter
Gerhard Richter: Group of People, 66 15/16 x 78 3/4 inches, 1965

In 2002 Gerhard Richter was included in a conversation about the restoration of the great gothic cathedral of Cologne. The building had survived the “thousand-bomber” raids that flattened the city in 1942, but the stained glass of the enormous tracery window in the south transept had been lost, and the cathedral chapter now wanted to replace the plain-glass postwar repairs with something that lived up to the building’s spectacular presence and spiritual purpose—ideally, a work by a major artist, commemorating victims of Nazism.

Richter was, in one sense, an obvious choice—one of Germany’s most prominent artists, he had lived in Cologne for years. In other ways, the decision was curious. Richter is not religious, and while his work had made glancing references to the Third Reich, his position on the often reflexive commemoration of war crimes was not uncomplicated. For the cathedral, he considered, then rejected, the possibility of transmuting Nazi execution photographs into stained glass. Instead he turned to a 1974 painting of randomly arranged color squares, part of a series that had included paintings, prints, and a design for commercial carpeting. Cologne’s archbishop, who had wanted something demonstrably—even exclusively—Christian, did not attend the unveiling.1 But while Richter’s window is, in theory, a reprise—its approximately 11,500 color squares were arranged by algorithm and tweaked by the artist to remove any suggestion of symbols or ciphers—the experience it provides is utterly distinct. The squares are made of glass using medieval recipes, they rise collectively some seventy-five feet, and are part of a gothic cathedral. When the sun shines through and paints floors, walls, and people with moving color, the effect is aleatoric, agnostic, and otherworldly. It should mean nothing, and feels like it could mean everything.

Decades earlier, fresh from two rounds of art school—one in East Germany, one in West—Richter had made a note to himself: “Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.” A good picture “takes away our certainty, because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view.”

Richter is contemporary art’s great poet of uncertainty; his work sets the will to believe and the obligation to doubt in perfect oscillation. Now eighty-eight, he is frequently described as one of the world’s “most influential” living artists, but his impact is less concrete than the phrase suggests. There is no school of Richter. His output is too quixotic, too personal, to be transferrable as a style in the manner of de Kooning or Rauschenberg. Though his influence has indeed been profound, it has played out in eyes rather than hands, shifting the ways in which we look,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.